This post was written by guest contributor Alex Holz.

Jeff Buckley: gifted songwriter, guitarist, and singer whose tragic early death at the hands of the Wolf River provides eternal “what if?” fodder for fans. Many know him for his stellar debut album Grace, but countless more have associated him with a transcendent cover rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.

Would Buckley have been as well-known without the cover recording?  Perhaps, but nevertheless, cover songs represent a readily accessible opportunity for recording artists to expand their creative output (Ryan Adams “Wonderwall), increase fan bases (American Idol), and tap into alternate revenue streams while incurring only modest resource investment (when securing the mechanical license via a service like Limelight, and time spent learning the song with sheet music and tablature, etc.).

Creating Covers for Film, Television, and Advertising

Acclaimed music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas (Gossip Girl, The O.C., Grey’s Anatomy) has introduced many indie bands to a larger audience and made several first big breaks (via television and film syncs). During the final season of The O.C., Patsavas asked several groups to record cover songs – including Nada Surf, Matt Pond P.A., and The Youth Group – as a way of bringing an added dimension to the show’s already noteworthy soundtrack.

While the uses for The O.C. were a one-off scenario, sync opportunities have become prime real estate for indie artists looking to reach new audiences as terrestrial radio playlists tighten.  Creating cover versions for film, television, and advertising placement present a low-risk, high-reward option available to anyone with well-produced renditions of classic songs.

Like The O.C., there are many television soundtracks using cover songs — here are several examples:

Weeds used cover versions of “Little Boxes” in Season 2 and 3 for the opening credits.

* FOX hit Glee entire show features on-camera ensemble performances of popular music

The Wonder Years tapped Joe Cocker’s cover of The Beatles’ “A Little Help From My Friends” as the opening theme song for its six season arc.

Film is perhaps the most difficult in choosing appropriate cover songs for, though there are many examples where cover songs rule the soundtrack:

50 First Dates featured several reggae and ska renditions of 80’s cover songs

I Am Sam and Across the Universe both put a new spin on The Beatles repertoire

* Notable one-off covers in films/trailers:

o   Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters ukulele version of “Tonight You Belong to Me” in The Jerk

o   Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ “Mad World” (originally by Tears for Fears) in Donnie Darko

o   Scala’s “Creep” (originally by Radiohead) in The Social Network trailer

o   Richard Cheese’s lounge rendition “Down With the Sickness” (originally by Disturbed, which also appears in the film) in Dawn of the Dead

Television and film aren’t the only outlets available.  In fact, advertising sometimes provides less guesswork in the “what song to cover?” process.  Several big name brands have chosen consistent a music theme by which to advertise their products and services.

The following tracks and campaigns are just a small sampling where cover songs were featured in advertisements:

“I Melt With You” (originally by Modern English) has seen the original and covers alike used in ads for Hershey, Burger King, Ritz, M&Ms, and Taco Bell

* British Airways has used various recordings of the “Flower Duet” (from the opera Lakme) in their advertisements for over 20 years – the original arrangement of which is in the public domain

* Indie sensations Pomplamoose’s covers have been used in Toyota and Hyundai commercials

McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign has featured several different recordings (including a version with vocals by Justin Timberlake)

As for the rights clearance involved?  The production team or agency licensing the master recording (and not the artist) would also be responsible for clearing the necessary synchronization license in order to use the underlying composition provided the artist/record label cleared the initial mechanical rights (more on that later).

Increased SoundExchange Royalties through Cover Songs

Unlike most countries in the world, recording artists do not receive a royalty from terrestrial radio (AM/FM) airplay in the United States.  Recording artists who didn’t write their own material would only benefit by association/promotion only without seeing direct airplay revenue.

However, there is a sound recording royalty associated with certain digital transmissions (satellite radio, internet radio, etc.). SoundExchange is the designated agent in collecting and distributing statutory royalties from these transmissions to recording artists, sound recording copyright owners, and backing musicians.

So how do artists make money through SoundExchange?  Simple – just as recording original music increases the chances for making new fans, selling more music, etc., creating cover recordings increases the chances of collecting internet and satellite radio performance spins (especially through stations and non-interactive streaming sites that feature such catalogue).  A great recording artist who doesn’t write their own material would ordinarily miss out on performance royalties in the terrestrial world, but digital picks up the slack and can pay out incremental revenue.

Like creating cover versions for sync placement, increasing revenue still requires legwork – including contacting and making your music available to tastemaker DJs (such as Coverville), but generating online airplay is easier than terrestrial radio and one of the most accessible ways to promoting music to a larger audience.

Once you’ve created your own recordings and promoted them to relevant sources, the collection process comes into play.  In order to collect, sound recording copyright owners, backing musicians, and artists (including those who are also songwriters represented by ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC) need to sign-up with SoundExchange via their online forms.  Since inception, SoundExchange has paid out over $537 million in royalties for major-label and independent artists alike (including $252 million in 2010 alone), so signing-up is a good idea to start collecting on your covers and original recordings alike.

So how do I record a cover song and release it?

“Pick a song, find recording gear, and hit record”.  Well, not quite.  Before releasing a cover song in the United States, you’ll need to secure a mechanical license, which provides permission to legally record and distribute the song.  A mechanical license is required if you choose to release the recording on digital music stores, stream it on your website, or sell it as a physical CD/vinyl recording, and ensures the appropriate songwriters and publishers get paid.  To clear the license, you can go the DIY route or use an online service such as Limelight for a modest fee.


Pitfalls to Avoid

Recording cover songs can provide new opportunities to engage fans and create more revenue opportunities, but there are several potential pitfalls to avoid:

Sampling is not the same as creating a cover song. Since multiple rights-holders are involved and they’re always subject to negotiation, it’s best to hire an attorney to handle.

* Changing / altering / creating new lyrics is a big “no-no” when creating a cover song, and requires direct permission from the publisher.  This includes creating a translation (unless that translation already exists on another recording).

* If a composition is in the public domain, you won’t need a license (unless it’s a copyrighted arrangement).  An arrangement that is under copyright would require a license.

* Always remember the Golden Rule of Licensing: if you don’t own or control it, you likely need a license to use it.

The licensing world contains complex rules and regulations for the casual artist, though one adage holds true: If you ever have a question – don’t be afraid to ask!

If you’d like to know more ways to make money off cover songs, be sure to check out our previous article on the subject.